I tried. I really did. I wanted to come up with something this week that was cheerful and upbeat and celebratory about comics and fandom and this world that I love.
But literally just DAYS after I tried to caution a couple of my former students about this particular phenomenon, here we are again.
For those who came in late, someone has once again realized-- SHOCK! HORROR! -- that the comics industry is hostile to women. The current controversy is swirling around DC Comics generally, and specifically why Eddie Berganza still has a job and Shelly Bond does not. I'm not terribly interested in litigating it-- the short version is that Berganza has a history of treating women very badly and Shelly Bond is a terrific editor, and DC fired the terrific editor and kept the serial sexual harasser. Now social media has been whipped into a fury and many fans are demanding DC fire Berganza and embark on some sort of consciousness-raising program to make their employees behave better.
Sorry, but the news that superhero comics, as an industry, treats women badly is common knowledge about on a level with 'plants need water to live.' Here's a quote for you.
I was disgusted, as usual, but I wasn’t surprised. Because this is an ongoing thing. Women are treated like shit in the mainstream comics industry– well, not mainstream, realistically it’s a tiny subset of “comics” overall when you add in newspaper comics and manga and indies and the entire spectrum. But in our corner of it, the superhero/adventure comics industry, women have not fared well. Over and over, they are dismissed, threatened, harassed, and marginalized in every way by both fans and pros on a personal and professional level.
I’ve heard all the arguments dismissing this and I’m really fed up with it. Apologists always say, Crazy entitled fans are shitty to everybody, they don’t single out just women. Sorry, but yeah they do. Sure, any time any of us on the blog writes something critical of the big publishers– DC in particular– we are swarmed by idiots screaming at us about how we are unreasoning haters who are down on superheroes in general or something like that, that’s true. But only Sonia and Kelly are dismissed because of their gender. Only they are sneered at and told they’re “clearly pushing a feminist agenda” or that they “need to get laid” … and there have been rape threats here too, a couple of them scary enough that they were passed on to the police.
Here's the thing. I wrote that in April of 2014. The entire first half of that piece was about the disgust that there we were again, and no one seemed terribly invested in doing anything about it. In the intervening two years, well, let's say my disgust has ramped up considerably at the apathy on display every time the subject comes up.
Here's my colleague Kelly from September of that year.
How thick is the irony that talking openly about harassment results in increased harassment? How clear is it that sexism and harassment exists as a problem when the knee jerk response to talking about issues of harassment and sexism is to harass and threaten women? It puts a really fine point on the issues… over and over and over again.
The hell of it is, both of those columns were supposed to be hopeful. My point was to raise awareness of We Are Comics, a tumblr blog that was created as a direct response to the misogyny women encounter in the comics industry, an effort to demonstrate that it's not JUST angry entitled man-children that like making comics. I was delighted to hear of the campaign and promptly sent in this entry...
My name is Greg and I've loved comics since I was six years old. This is me and my wife Julie and a bunch of the students and graduates of the Cartooning after-school arts program at our booth at Emerald City Con, where the students-- who are usually female-- display their art and their 'zines every year. I write about comics and pop culture every week at CBR, but the single thing I'm proudest of in all my years in and around comic books is opening the door for these talented young ladies and many others to come and do their own comics and be part of it all. Comics and reading gave me a badly-needed safe harbor to go to when I was a kid, and being able to provide that same refuge for so many of my students now, and to see them blossom and come into their own, has been easily the most rewarding thing I've ever been part of. I hope this campaign shows everyone how important it is to keep comics a safe and welcoming environment for anyone who wants to be part of it.
The Tumblr is still around but the visibility of the project never reached what I and others hoped it would, and certainly, judging from recent events-- hell, judging the from the intervening two years-- the people that needed to get the point instead largely dismissed it. More SJW whining. Whatever.
Kelly is probably more disgusted than I am; her column from two years ago expressed the hope that decency was actually winning. That the jerks and creeps and gropers were being shamed out of the industry. That the big comics companies were getting on board.
Turns out, not so much.
This has been going on so long that it's a cycle now. Every so often-- usually, it's two or three times a year-- some guy in the comics industry will do something so horribly misogynist and un-evolved that it blows up into a news story in the comics blogosphere for a couple of weeks. Everyone weighs in and then we all move on. Because, y'know, that's just the way things are.
That's the thing that frustrates me so much. That we all just shrug. Well, of course. It's comics. Everyone in comics is damaged and weird. That's the landscape. What, you expected them to be LESS damaged and awkward with their treatment of women? Climb off the rainbow, you ridiculous idealist. Expecting maturity from comics people is about as realistic as hoping for a magic dog that eats garbage and craps money.
That is a cognitive disconnect that just baffles me. Superhero comics are supposed to be about idealism. About characters that are better. Y'know, it's why they put the actual word HERO in there. In the very first Superman story EVER, the one that jump-started the entire industry, Superman takes out a wife-beater. Because it was baked into the culture that bullying women was wrong. Duh.
But only in the stories, not in real life. In real life, women in and around comics get bullied and harassed all the time. It has been an entrenched part of fan culture for as long as I've been attending fan gatherings, and when fans turned pro they apparently brought it with them to the workplace. To the point where women at big publishers are routinely warning each other about certain professionals, where at conventions we now have to have signs that explain GROPING STRANGERS IS WRONG, DON'T DO IT. and so on. Just part of the gig.
I have been guilty of this apathy myself. I used to shrug it off too. I can recall an incident at my very first convention ever, San Diego in 1999. A woman friend who was grumbling about the man that had been following her all weekend, wasn't taking a hint, it was starting to get really creepy, suddenly said to me, "Oh my God, here he comes again, tell him I went back to the hotel," and dived behind a potted plant. So I did as she asked and we laughed grimly about it later. The stalker went on to be a respected pro in the industry and when he eventually grasped, after many, many efforts to explain it nicely, that this young lady did not appreciate his attentions, he withdrew-- but with very ill grace. And blamed her.
Here's what I should have done. I shouldn't have laughed. I should have had the guts to say to him at the time, "You are scaring her. You need to stop. This obsessive following is not how you get girls to like you."
But I didn't. Because it wasn't really my business, because the young lady didn't seem to be in danger, because I felt awkward and didn't want to make a scene. Whatever. These things happen.
What I've discovered, though, is that in fandom they happen a LOT. And that 'making a scene' is the only way the point gets made. So today when the subject comes up I am much less concerned about the offending party's feelings being hurt.
Because it has frankly gotten exponentially worse. In the pre-internet days you only had to worry about convention stalking. Today it'll pop up on your phone.
Or on the job, as it would seem a significant number of DC's female employees have discovered.
In case I have not made this clear, I've heard all the arguments and excuses for unacceptable behavior from guys in the industry. The one that comes up most often is that 'he didn't mean to make her uncomfortable,' or 'his intentions were good.'
Let me spell it out for you: INTENTION DOESN'T MATTER. People do not judge you on your intentions. They judge you on your behavior.
And whether they admit it or not, creepy comics guys are aware of this. You know how I know? Because a decade ago or thereabouts, I was working Emerald City Comic-Con with my students. My seventh-grade cartooning students, mostly girls. A couple of guys came by wanting to take a picture. I stupidly thought they were press. Our friend Lorinda asked what it was for and the guys said they were just taking pictures of hot girls, and nodded at the students.
Rin said, freezingly, "You understand that they are only twelve years old?"
One said, "Oh my GOD!" and they fled.
See? They knew it was creepy. But ONLY because the girls were underage. That particular taboo, they understood.
Here's what I wish I had said then: Just wandering around, taking pictures of 'hot girls,' without explaining unless specifically asked.... how is that better? How is it less creepy to say Oh, I'm just adding to my wank library to a girl that you don't know? Legal age or not?
By the way, here are the underage 'hot girls' in question. They were not sexy cosplayers 'just asking to have the guys ogle them,' I assure you.
Alexa even had braces, for crying out loud.
That's when I hit the wall on this, for those who are interested. I'm sorry that it took something that close to home to make me conscious of how pervasive this behavior is.... because every woman I have ever met in comics has a creep story. Most of them have stories, plural. Well into double digits.
So here we are again. DC editorial is just the current shitstorm.
Look, I'm sure there are lots of decent guys working at DC who are just doing their jobs. I understand that not all men in comics do this sort of thing, and I'd even hazard a hopeful guess that it's not a majority of them.
Here is my challenge to you, decent comics guys. Learn the lesson I learned from the almost-stalker types who were ogling my 12-year-old cartooning girls, and all the other creeps and freaks in comics that count on our placid acceptance of their behavior-- to make it absolutely clear that we don't accept it. I ask you to realize that it's okay, it's even necessary, to make a scene. At the time, when it's happening. Right then and there.
Because feeling awkward is not an adequate reason not to. And because trying to explain it nicely is not getting it done.
See you next week.